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    JCC CenterStage Sweeney Todd
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    In the midst of Tech Week, CenterStage's gifted director John Leffert took the time to meet with Louisville.com. Below is a peek into the upcoming production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Find out why Sondheim is fantastic, how actors can stand out in a scene when multiple lines are being sung at once, and what goes on in the director's mind when creating this dark, twisted, yet captivating world for the audience.

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    Lou.com: Clearly this is an elaborate production in the best possible way.

    John Leffert: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a cast of about 24 people, so it’s not as big as some of our shows, but it is a big cast, big set. Worked with a new designer. Karl Anderson designed our sets for the show and then Alyssa Shepherd who had been around designed our costumes… It’s kind of a mix of the revival and a mix of the classic original, so it’s… a well-blended piece of the two.

    Lou.com: And did you purposefully want someone new for this kind of production or did it just happen to work out that way?

    JL: No, no, it just happened to work out. Karl works for Actors Theatre…in their props department. He designs a lot around town. He’s a very accomplished designer and artist, and it just worked out that he felt passionate about this show….It’s been an amazing collaboration between the two of us to get to this point.

    Lou.com: What challenges were there in creating the set and when envisioning the make up? I saw the preview photos on facebook, and it looks phenomenal.

    JL: The biggest challenge of Sweeney Todd is the music. It’s Sondheim. A lot of words. We joke about Sondheim with that. It’s incredibly challenging. We spent the majority of the rehearsal process learning music… What makes it complicated staging-wise is the timing of up and down the stairs… especially when you get to the more suspenseful ending…So we’re still working towards that as we get on to set and everything this week.

    You know, scenically, it was important to me that- I kind of came up with this idea of it being in a warehouse. Or, I kind of took from the revival that Toby is in this insane asylum. He starts the revival in a straight jacket. And I thought that was pretty genius… Then we kind of darkened it from a mental institution to an old warehouse where all the action is taking place… It was important for me to keep the darkness of the show… And it all kind of takes place in the world that we created. The interesting thing that you’ll notice is the oven is going to be on the entire show, so it’s just kind of looming there in front of you… There’s different textures that create kind of that- stripped curtains when you walk in to like a cooler- an industrial kind of feel. There are these great sliding doors for these really strong entrances, and for the asylum at the end.

    Karl’s created this amazing world to put this play on and there’s different windows- a lot of times you’ll see different actors. You know, they’re supposed to be in different locations and we mostly have to do that with lighting and such. Same thing with the costumes… We’ve kind of set it in this period-ish show.... A lot of texture with the lights. A lot of shadow. A lot of dark. As you would expect with Sweeney Todd.

    JCC CenterStage Sweeney Todd

    A preview of Austin Lauer as Sweeney Todd; make up created by Mikhail Schultz of J. Michael Spa and Salon

    Lou.com: Sounds very complex.

    JL: Yeah, it’s been fun to work on. It’s definitely fun artistically to see those visions come to fruition this week.

    Lou.com: I read that you mentioned that this was on your bucket list of shows to direct.

    JL: It is.

    Lou.com: What places this show on your personal bucket list?

    JL: I think the complexity of the show. It creates these iconic, brilliant characters to get to dig into their psyche and why they do what they do. The relationships and the way Sondheim tells the story is so incredibly brilliant. You know, a lot of times when rehearsing the show, these characters meet very little in the process. It’s kind of like all these different worlds where the story comes together at the end. And that whole idea of revenge and what drives Sweeney, and ultimately, in his heart, it’s love for his child and for his wife and it’s just kind of a sad depiction. And then you’ve got Lovett who cohesively pulls the piece together, pulls all the pieces. But then she’s also the comedic behind the piece.

    You know, I think what so many people don’t realize about Sweeney Todd is the wit. It’s finding that wit and humor in this horrific tale. And I think Sweeney Todd gives a great kind of nod back to those 1950’s horror movies where they’re very clever, but they’re very tongue-in-cheek some too.

    It’s how Sondheim tells the story. I think it’s completely brilliant. And then just to get to work on a kind of character like Sweeney and Lovett are just amazing. And the beggar woman. There’s just such rich characters- what drove the judge to do what he did. I love shows that tell great stories, and this is definitely one of those.

    Lou.com: CenterStage always does a good job of finding the wit.

    JL: I hope so. We’ve been working hard. It’s tough, because you kind of get into that dark place, and you’re like, oh, we can’t forget this and this and this. We’ve got some really great talent. The man playing Toby is truly brilliant. He was in Spring Awakening. His name is Andrew Hughes. He played the Hanschen love interest. He was also in Chicago.

    Lou.com: His voice is really great.

    JL: Yeah, beautiful, beautiful. And he’s just really captured the heart of Toby, and you know, that love between he and Lovett. The cast has really come together. Amazing.

    Lou.com: In addition to Andrew Hughes, there’s also Lauer and Poliskie. There are a few recurring stars. Did you know from past productions?

    JL: No. We held auditions after Spring Awakening closed and then held callbacks for the show. They all made the general call and then I called some people back. Casting in a show can go in any direction. Young, old, types- and it just so happened that how it fell is that our Sweeney and our Lovett are a little younger and we’re having to age them somewhat to get them where they need to be age-wise. But it has so much vocal demand and there needs to be a certain attraction to Sweeney in kind of a sick way. Like he needs to have a little sex appeal, he needs to have a little attraction. Why has Lovett held that candle for him for so long? And you’ve also got to remember where he was at the beginning of the play. At least what we don’t know…

    It all came together and it happens that Austin was the lead in Spring Awakening. His voice is just incredibly rich. He had done [the role] at University of Evansville as one of his final pieces there before he graduated. He’s incredibly familiar with the piece. He understands the character. He gets it. And then Jennifer Poliskie has a great, amazing vocal instrument, and to give her comedic timing behind it- it’s just playing very well off each other. That’s very exciting.

    And you mentioned earlier about the make up. You know, this show is sponsored by J. Michael Spa and Salon. Not only are they sponsoring it, but they’re also designing all the hair and make up for the show. Mikhail Schultz came in and actually did the make up for the press shoot last night. He’s really developed this kind of- again, along with the visual designs with the costume, to create this concept make up and hair, giving a nod to the film, a nod to the original. You know, there’s that iconic hair of Lovett that you will see suggestions of… Same with Sweeney… He’s done a brilliant job pulling the whole design of the show. It’s definitely going to be a striking piece.

    No one’s going to look like they’re you’re next-door neighbor in this show. They’re all in a world that Sweeney exists in. It’s just trying to create that cohesive world with make up, costume, set, lighting. It takes the audience to wherever they are and wherever they want them to be.

    Lou.com: It’s pretty perfect timing, considering Halloween is this time of year. Did you have that in mind?

    JL: We do. When we choose our fall show, if there’s a show we’re doing like Sweeney, of course we want to place it in that. This is where we put Little Shop [of Horrors].

    Lou.com: It’s very smart.

    JL: That was conscious, absolutely. If we’re going to do it, it had to be for the fall slot.

    Lou.com: People are going to love the idea of seeing, as you said, “not your next-door neighbor,” especially this time of year when everyone likes to take a step outside of their usual selves. So what makes directing Sondheim different, aside from just the added language?

    JL: Sondheim, from a theater standpoint- he always has a twist in how he tells it. He breaks rhythms, key changes. There’s a lot of dissonance in this show. His music is notoriously hard. The orchestrations are incredibly difficult. We do probably have our largest orchestra for this show. We have a 16 piece live orchestra that will be with us, led by Austin Clark. And he’s hired full strings, everything. So that’s going to be very exciting. It’s just so complex musically in how he’s overlapped lines and a lot of the dialogue for example in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” you’ll hear- there’s not a scene, but there is a scene- it’s all within the song.

    I told the cast last night, “Your job would be to make your line the most important.” But there might be ten solos that are going on at the same time on top of what another character is singing. Also, the harmonies are incredibly tight….He uses his music to create a mood of dissonance and the close harmonies… He is definitely the visionary of what this world is. This show…definitely feels operatic in nature and it’s grand-scale. 

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    CenterStage and J. Michael Spa and Salon present Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Jewish Community Center, opening tonight, October 23rd through Sunday, November 9th.

    Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door.

    To purchase tickets, call (502) 238-2709 or by clicking here.

    Visit CenterStageJCC.org for more information about becoming a season subscriber! CenterStage is celebrating its 100th season of shows that make Louisville's theater scene stellar.

    All Photos: Courtesy of JCC CenterStage's facebook page

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    About Julie Lamb

    Curly-haired owner of one massive sweet tooth, believer of Harry Potter and Disney fairytales, and a fierce lover of all things literary and the arts.

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